Aussie Comedy’s Battlers
“A symphony and a musical are two different things, you fucking country hick.”
– Tommy Dassalo (Dum Dum #267)
Australian comedians are an embattled lot. And why wouldn’t they be?
When your early professional opportunities come in the form of chimeric open-mic line-ups, semi-televised talent shows and iTunes, the term ‘battle’ really does seems to apply. Of the comedians I’ve been lucky enough to meet, most are under or around thirty, and are either starting out in the business, building on early career successes or (somehow) managing full-time work on the side. In a lot of ways, these folks experience life week to week – whether jumping up for a five-minute set at a room, or booking sets for their own rooms, recording free shows or touring the country, the working life of a young comedian seems to demand impeccable time-management skills, especially when you factor in the time spent in bars, on planes, in other bars, at theatres and finally onstage. In other words, the contemporary Aussie comedian knows when and how to check their phone.
More to the point, these people find the time to create astonishingly good comedy, comedy that helps you redefine your comfort zone, comedy that finds a kind of joyous fault (or perhaps faulty joy) in the world around it. And we’re hungry for that kind of comedy. It’s part of what we borrow from American and British sensibilities, and it’s something that our own comedy has effectively transformed over the decades. You need only watch an “unsatisfying” documentary about the subject to know that Australian audiences like to identify with the comedy they watch – think The Castle, think Dame Edna or Norman Gunston, think Comedy Company, think as far as Fast Forward and Full Frontal and you’ll get the relative importance of comedy for our particular cultural landscape. We like telling jokes, we like jokes being told, authority’s ineffective and mateship is important, something like that.
But I like today’s comedians a little better, because they absolute masters at re-writing this kind of comedy. Consider a Melbourne podcast like The Little Dum Dum Club, a show for “mates”, or as they put it, people who “are aware of the show”. I’m unabashedly aware of this show, and consider it to be one of the best podcasts out there, particularly if you like following or would like to follow the trials and adversities of modern Australian comedy. Of the roughly 280 episodes available, there are some real stand-outs, including a series of episodes featuring well-established comedians Fiona O’Loughlin and Lawrence Mooney. These episodes go further than you might expect, exploring issues around addiction, mental health and suicide in surprising depth (while keeping, of course, with the show’s general piss-taking, bull-shitting tone).
I bring this up because of the latest episode of Dum Dums, a recording of one of the many live shows attending this year’s various capital city comedy festivals. This one’s in Adelaide, adjacent to the Adelaide Fringe Festival, and will feature (or will have featured) Mooney and O’Loughlin again, along with comedians Tom Ballard and Tommy Little. If their previous work is anything to go by, these folks have some top-tier material to promote, and will no doubt have done so to a live audience on February 13th. But this episode sort of stands out, because one of its guests – Mooney – has been in the news in the last few days, for some provocative comments he made about a particular Adelaide-ian reviewer named Bella Fowler on February 14th.
Fowler did not exactly take to Mooney’s style of comedy, it seems, and her review of his festival show Moonman questions whether he is actually a comedian or not, concluding that “Lawrence Mooney is just a funny guy under a spotlight.” Mooney did not exactly take to Fowler’s style of reviewing. On Twitter , he asked Fowler “are you deaf or an idiot”, and told her “your review is a piece of shit” and “your journalism is worse”, whilst describing her review as “a thoughtless, insouciant swipe from a fucking amateur”.
Fowler hit back on Twitter, “@lawrencemooney hope attacking me over twitter makes you feel like a big man. Soz I didn’t like your show. Now let’s all calm the fuck down”. Things escalated, with Mooney replying “Don’t play victim deadshit you wrote the piece of crap so I’m going to hang it around your neck. @BellaFowler93”. Soon the entire neighborhood was involved, including radio personality and former panelist on The Panel Kate Langbroek, who told critics of Mooney not to be “feeble-minded”, while these critics pointed out (somewhat reasonably, I think) that Mooney’s response seemed like overkill.
The least surprising thing about it all is that people are still discussing it, online and in print. But what are we discussing?
I don’t know how important the Adelaide Advertiser is to a comedian’s long-term credibility or take-home earnings, sure. The Fringe Festival seems like a timely precursor for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in April, where people can expect to hear first comment on the year’s shows in advance. But all of this reporting got derailed by Mooney’s comments on social media, with papers like The Sydney Morning Herald carrying the headline “Lawrence Mooney harasses ‘deadshit’ female journalist for Adelaide Fringe review ” soon after. The Advertiser is still going somewhat hard on it, with the Feb 16 headline “No action against Fringe comedian Lawrence Mooney after abusive tirade against Advertiser reviewer“, and a second written piece from Fowler herself, which is titled kind of like a telemovie: “I Reviewed Lawrence Mooney in Good Faith” .
A lot of this reporting has focused on the differences in experience, stature and (yes) power between Mooney and Fowler, given both the nature of the review and the overall tone of the discussion that followed. When the phrases “attacking me”, “big man” and “don’t play victim” get thrown about, it’s hard to ignore the gender dynamics at play, or to ignore the situation of a vocal and en-platformed celebrity going after a 100-word review by a virtually anonymous young journalist. In one tweet, Mooney riffs on Fowler’s Twitter bio, and her self-description as a “perpetually hungry scatterbrain”, who in his words “decided to crack out a hundred-word thesis on me”. “Do you know my work?” he asks her, “Or did you think it’d be cool to write a review. *giggle*”. A “fucking amateur”, a “tiny mind”, a “#nong” – there were a lot of 140-character theses on Fowler happening that day. And this kind of thing matters, especially when journalists like Kara Eva Schlegl have begun to unearth the darker elements of the Australian comedy scene .
But this kind of conflict appears to have given way to other, more abstract questions. In her follow-up piece, Fowler poses two big questions: “No I am not a seasoned comedy critic, but does that really matter? Since when does a lack of experience void a right to an opinion?” Helen Razer has effectively challenged this position, pointing out that capital-C criticism takes a lot of work , particularly when it comes to examining one’s own experience of and assumptions about art. In yet another article about the fracas, the Adelaide Addy spins Fowler’s inexperience with comedy into a strangely passive-aggressive swipe: “one of this newspaper’s point of pride is that it does send professional journalists and arts academics to review productions, rather than the hordes of amateur Tweeters and bloggers who are just happy to have been given a free ticket.” The same article actually compares Mooney to presidential uber-troll Donald Trump (this is overkill as well).
For what it’s worth, the reviewers I know tend to be more seasonal than seasoned, and are often writers or performers themselves – like open mic-ers, or “the hordes of amateur(s)” imagined by the Addy, their payment comes in the form of “exposure” and the occasional free ticket to a thing. But for these people, the work of criticism does “really matter”. It’s an opportunity to engage with real creative professionals, and to reflect on the kind of art that they love. So it’s pretty frustrating to see this kind of work boiled back down to someone’s “right to an opinion”, in part because we appear to have no better metrics for discussing free speech in comedy anymore. Opinions may or may not be a right, but they are definitely a risk, particularly when your professional brand depends on an ability to transform those opinions into worthwhile commentary. The best comedians and the best reviewers both partake in this kind of risk, something which becomes clear to me every time comedy “makes the news” in this fashion. Day by day, the speech of the contemporary Aussie comedian is anything but free. But this is less a “PC” conspiracy than a fact of modern, visible, interconnected life. The same goes for critics, even part-timers.
These battles take place week by week, or even minute by minute online, and they all purport to tell us something about what comedy is, why it matters, and what we should tell others about it. But while I encourage you to pick up your preferred device and have your say, I can’t help but imagine the folks who haven’t yet put down their phones, because their entire public and fiscal identity is tied up in the having of says, and in dealing with the consequences of what gets said. So right now I’m going to listen to that episode of the Little Dum Dum Club, and travel back to a simpler time, when funny people under spotlights were considered comedians and everyone hung around for a drink and a chat afterwards. But I hope they get Mooney on again soon.